When I was younger, I despised public speaking, and resented that it was a necessary component of so many classes. My hatred of speaking in front of a group of people came from a profound fear of being judged by others, of stammering over my words, and looking like a fool. Each year starting from around Grade 3 there were countless speeches and presentations that I would have to complete in order to receive a passing grade, and as the years went on my hatred and fear of public speaking grew and grew.
It would start with getting an assignment and learning that there was a presentation involved. In the days and weeks leading up to the due date, I would procrastinate and ignore the work that had to be done in order to avoid the anxiety that went along with it; in other words, I was in a state of denial. The night before “Speech Day” always saw me wracking my brain trying to memorize lines and calm my nerves, and stressing out to the point of losing sleep. This paled in comparison to sitting in class waiting for my turn to present; as my classmates went up and spoke, I was so focused on my own imminent demise that I would not - could not - pay attention to what others were presenting, but assumed they were doing so with the ease and showmanship of a late night talk show host. I would get myself so worked up that I would be sweating, my heart racing, my mind racing even faster, imagining the infinite ways I could mess this up, while at the same time praying that others went over time and my fate would be pushed back by a day.
Unfortunately, my hope that I could avoid the inevitable often made the experience worse, dangling this possibility over my head that simply wanting something to go away would make it so. But it never did. And when my name was called, I would get so upset that my fears had come true that my mind would go completely blank. I’ll take this time to apologize to the teachers and students who had to sit through my school speeches and presentations, which consisted almost entirely of “umms” and “uhhs” in between trying to catch my breath and laughing nervously. These speeches would go on for an eternity (which in reality was only about 3-5 minutes) before I would trod back to my seat, my greatest fears having come true, and I would resign myself to the fact that public speaking was the worst thing in the world.
This went on until sometime in late high school. I don’t remember when or exactly how it happened, but as I was writing a speech one day I had a moment of clarity, and realized that I was not the only one who dreaded speaking in front of others. In fact, everyone around me was in the same boat as I was: we all hated speaking in front of others because it terrified us, and our fear and anxiety resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy where we would get so worked up we would botch the presentation, which only further confirmed our fears and added more stress to the next speaking assignment. I remember the calm that came over me when I realized that everyone was feeling the same thing, and that my fear and anxiety was only making it worse. On my next speaking assignment, I accepted whatever fate was to come of me with open arms: I told myself that I might make a speech that moved people to tears and caused a stampede of applause and approval, or I might forget my words, trip over my shoelace, hit my head on a desk, and pass out in front of all my friends. In either scenario, what would happen would happen, and would be over in a few short minutes. Once I took away the misguided hope that I could avoid the entire situation and accepted that this was a part of my life, the entire experience became so much less frightening, painful, and stressful! Over time, I even developed a love for public speaking, and learned that, with the right preparation, I’m pretty good at it.
In this scenario, the only thing that changed about my situation was my acceptance of what was happening to me. Acceptance of one’s circumstances can be a profoundly powerful tool, because it is a conscious redirection of our thoughts and energy: rather than railing against something we cannot hope to change, we divert our focus to working with the hand we have been dealt, and making the best of the situation. While I used the example of public speaking, acceptance can apply to just about any situation: receiving a frightening medical diagnosis, learning that a loved one has passed away, recovering from a serious accident or injury, receiving a failing grade on an important assignment, or even having an intimate relationship end. The list can go on and on. Regardless of our own circumstances, the energy that we devote to feeling anxious about what might happen, or wishing it was not happening to us, is energy that we no longer have at our disposal to actually help manage the situation. In most cases, wishing a problem would go away only increases our suffering, because we are constantly reminded that the problem is not going away, and are therefore in a constant state of disappointment, sadness, anger, or bitterness.
This is not to say that accepting one’s situation is the same as giving up hope that things can get better. Indeed, having that hope and positive attitude are crucial components to dealing with stressful or even catastrophic life events. By accepting the hand you have been dealt, you are making a choice to focus your energy on improving the situation, rather than focusing your energy on wishing it was not happening to you. Thinking about yourself, are there things that might be a little easier to cope with if you were to accept them as a part of your life?